International pupils: how will the pandemic impact recruitment?

Figures suggest that the pandemic has not diminished the appeal of the independent sector, but what could the lingering impact of Covid-19 be on the sector’s ability to attract international pupils?

Home has taken on a different connotation for many since the UK entered lockdown in the spring of 2020. The perimeters of our lives have tightened. For some international students, the pandemic meant postponing the decision to study at one of Britain’s 500 or so boarding schools.

The i revealed in September that around one in 14 international pupils at British boarding schools have delayed or deferred returning to the country because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The figures come from a sample of 100 schools that belong to the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA); while only representative, the data suggests that around 88% have returned to their UK dorms. More recent figures are not available – but given that many of those delaying their return are studying remotely, the financial impact on the international recruitment market may be far smaller than feared back in the spring.

Scientific consensus has concluded that the pandemic poses a small threat to school-aged children; this has no doubt lessened parental fears about sending children to boarding school this year. An acknowledgement from the UK government in July that educational settings in England should open in September helped to project a positive, ‘open’ message about the entire sector.

But the BSA helped the sector to do much of the heavy lifting to maintain student and parent confidence in its members. The BSA published a Covid-Safe Charter that outlined best practice for preparing a secure educational environment. It also offered parents detailed assurances of the support schools would offer returning international pupils.

Schools would ensure each student would be met by a named person on arrival and ferried from drop-off to school in a direct and socially distanced way. The charter also made clear that school would not tolerate “any bullying related to the pandemic”. There were fears that the origins of the virus – and the description of the novel virus as the ‘China virus’ by the president of the United States – could encourage cases of xenophobic harassment. To help disseminate this information, BSA organised seminars with charter participants for parents of potential students.

Transition to online

Transmission rates appear to be receding in some parts of the globe but worsening in the UK and much of Western Europe. Is the UK independent sector a hostage to circumstances? Caroline Nixon, director of the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students (BAISIS) and international director for BSA, does not think so. Namely, because the sector has remained so resilient; but also, because it has taken time to put online marketing and communication strategies into place.

“Recruitment activity has moved online with schools offering virtual open days, tours and parents’ evenings which have been well received,” Nixon says.

The online marketing efforts will likely become permanent features of schools’ international marketing

Almost every independent school has virtual open mornings. Some, like The Beacon School, offered students a live tour around the school site led by a current pupil. St Catherine’s School in Twickenham, for example, had virtual maps to help students visualise the school’s premises. Hazlegrove encouraged parents to complete a form and organise a one-to-one call with a member of staff. Millfield hosted a week-long itinerary of events including webinars, live-streamed events and appointment-only tours, including in-person, Covid-safe visits to the school.

Felsted School’s online summer school attracted more than 670 young people from over 40 countries. A typical ‘study day’ consisted of short and flexible online sessions to make allowances for different time zones; participants watched a pre-recorded video, read tailored articles, then attended live discussion groups. These programmes demonstrated that the sector could master the technological solutions to distance.

“Agents’ and schools’ marketing fairs have also moved online, and although nothing replaces the actual face-to-face meeting of parents and schools, online conversations are proving a good temporary substitute. The BSA is also helping its certified agents by offering free seminars where we can talk to and reassure potential parents via agents and this would not be possible if we had to do it in person,” Nixon continues.

Strathallan School in Perthshire reported “record interest” from American parents in the summer. Two-thirds of Strathallan’s 550 pupils choose to board, with 20% of these pupils coming from over 30 different countries.

“This increase in American pupils joining us adds to the rich tapestry of our ambitious school,” says headmaster Mark Lauder. “Our safe and secure campus and our ability to offer a tailor-made in-person education have been cited as two of the main reasons US parents and pupils are considering us.”

With the news that a vaccine is approaching its final test stages, schools will need to maintain engagement and communication to ensure an orderly and successful recruitment cycle this year.

Adapting to these new ways of working is to be welcomed, Nixon adds. Online marketing is more cost-effective – and in an education sector that will likely utilise online learning more heavily, the digital sphere is the natural environment to demonstrate a school’s e-capabilities.

Nixon adds: “The online marketing efforts will likely become permanent features of schools’ international marketing. This can only be a good thing in terms of lessening the ecological impact.

Schools which previously spent large amounts of time and money flying across the world to hand out paper brochures to parents in hotel rooms will likely stay online to a greater extent in the future, which can only be a good thing.”

Piece of the puzzle

Unlike UK higher education – which derives an income of around £5,000m from international students – UK independent schools are less dependent on international students for operating income. Unlike income from research and UK-domiciled students, which do not cover their costs, international students are a vital piece in the university economic jigsaw. According to the most recent Independent Schools Council (ISC) census, international students comprise around 5% of the total proportion of all pupils.

Some have portrayed international students as a critical financial lifeline to independent schools, but how should we assess the risk to the sector if recruitment figures fall during the pandemic?

Schools which previously spent large amounts of time and money flying across the world to hand out paper brochures to parents in hotel rooms will likely stay online to a greater extent in the future, which can only be a good thing

“Some schools in the sector utilise funds from fees from international pupils, as well as other fundraising such as alumni, to subsidise the generous bursaries that most UK boarding schools offer to children whose parents could not otherwise afford the fees,” says Nixon.

Students from China and Hong Kong make up the largest proportion of international students – particularly among those whose parents live outside of the UK. Students from mainland China comprise more than 28% of international students whose parents live overseas and students from Hong Kong comprise more than 17%. Chinese students now account for more than one in six international pupils at UK independent schools.

As ISC’s census shows, the number of students from mainland China has increased every year since records began. Any future diplomatic tension between the two nations may harm the UK education sector’s ability to attract Chinese students. In 2018, The Telegraph equated the drop in Russian students enrolled at UK private schools as a ‘cold war’ of sorts.

Although there is no quantifiable evidence as to why Russian recruitment figures have dropped year-on-year since 2015, relations between the two nations soured in 2014 when the UK imposed sanctions on Russia following the Ukrainian crisis. Then, Obama and Cameron led European efforts to punish Russian expansionism; with Biden’s rhetoric on China, perhaps Anglo-Sino relations could follow a similar decline.

Pandemic aside, powerful forces will continue to impact our independent school sector. It is vital schools acquire the agility to reach ambitious international students anywhere in the world: online marketing tools could be just the answer.

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